It was a week after all the observances of rites were over. Laboni gathered herself up, determined to shake off the pall of gloom which life had suddenly thrust on her. Despondency was alien to her nature as she had been always dismissive of pessimistic thoughts. But the unexpected blow of finding Prasun, her husband lying lifeless beside her one fateful morning unhinged her life. Her husband had suffered a massive heart attack in his sleep.
Falling in pace with the rhythm of life was not at all easy. One Saturday morning she thought of cleaning and arranging Prasun's closet. Forty-two years of happy togetherness was a long enough time to build memories, much of which were nestled within the stitch and folds of the objects lying in the closet. Prasun was neither lavish nor fastidious about dressing up; rather a tad unmindful of being presentable. So buying his garments and choosing what to wear on each occasion was Laboni's sacred duty. Even arranging his cluttered closet at the end of each month was a ritual which she devoutly undertook. But organising the closet in disarray of a living person was different from what she experienced in his absence. In fact, she had in mind to send off a bulk of his belongings to a charity organisation with which she was attached. The shirts piled up on shelves carried a wisp of his fragrance, the pyjamas and Punjabis were redolent of celebrations and occasions when they were bought and worn. In a corner stood the neglected walking stick half-hidden behind the curtain of coats and blazers. The stick, long rejected, was bought in Nainital where Prasun had sustained a knee injury from a fall. Laboni remembered how they had to rush back home, cutting short their stay.
The wardrobe was stuffed with winter garments -- coats, jackets, pullovers mufflers and caps. Prasun found the blazers and jackets too heavy and flamboyant for Kolkata's winter. It was Laboni who always insisted on buying him winter garments each time they visited the hill stations of India. Her eyes drifted over the woollen sweater; a signature piece made of lamb wool bought from the House of Bruer in Scotland. It hardly saw the light of day as Prasun complained that he didn't wish to sizzle in it. Neckties of sundry shades and stripes, tie-pins, cufflinks, mostly gifted by Laboni on special occasions unfurled a series of remembrances.
Suddenly her eyes rested on a small box in which a set of sandalwood cufflinks were ensconced. Laboni kissed and caressed it for quite some time, taking in the pristine aroma of their love. It was the very first gift she had given to her husband during their courtship period; priceless, as she had saved every bit of her pocket money to purchase it.
She kept all the shirts, woollen garments and other dresses that would be carted away the day after to the charity house neatly tied in packets. Some exclusive stuff she kept as keepsakes and for the use of his son Bappa. But at the back of her mind she knew that Bappa, unlike his father, was quite fussy with attire.
Pulling out the woollens smelling profusely of mothballs and arranging them to decide the ones to be given away she stopped over a frayed, faded, hand-woven pullover of maroon shade and gazed at it for a long time. Prasun had considered it to be the most precious of all his belongings and had lovingly worn it thirty-eight winters of his life. The pullover hugged his broad shoulders slightly stooping with age even last winter. Laboni sat transfixed unspooling the yarn of her frayed memories. She had moved back in time thirty-eight years.
* * *
Those were the days when sporting hand-woven knitwear was the customary trend. Machine-woven woollen garments were mainly worn as school dress or by the less unfortunate who didn't have tender hands to weave for them. Time did not matter much as women in buses, trains, waiting rooms, parks and in every conceivable place were seen merrily chatting, while their nimble fingers kept busy weaving patterns with the knitting needles.Laboni as a small child would proudly flaunt sweaters and ponchos knitted by her mother. But she could not be coaxed to be tutored in the art of knitting. Even when she grew up, she was determined not to engage in such girlie business. Little did she realize then that the scoffing would be enough cause to regret later in life!
After her marriage she started teaching in a Girls' school. It was here that she found that almost all her colleagues were adept in knitting; even the ones of her age proudly displayed their skill. During winter all the teachers in off time or recess didn't waste a minute. They kept themselves busy knitting and chatting simultaneously; both arts vying with each other. Laboni sometimes wondered if knitting was a sort of obsession for them! In winter parties and picnics while the men were mostly draped in woollens which their wife or sister had made, Prasun would be the odd one out in jackets and pullovers bought from New Market. The conversation of the ladies invariably converged on their knitting skill, focussing on the latest patterns and words of praise for each other. Laboni felt left out in the flow of such conversations. At last she thought that it was never too late to learn anything.
So one fine winter morning she made up her mind to knit a pullover for her husband, and gift it to him. Maybe just knit one in her entire life but she was determined to achieve it.
"Welcome to our world!" Sujata gave Laboni a warm smile when the latter approached her in the staff room armed with a packet of the finest wool, deep maroon in colour and knitting needles. Laboni chose to accept Sujata as her teacher and guide since she had a penchant for knitting and lived close to her house. Soon she realized that things like cooking, stitching, knitting, the jobs she had dismissed as 'girlie' were inborn endowments in every woman and under Sujata's guidance the pullover soon took shape. Prasun beheld his wife indulgently when Laboni sat with him after her day's work, engrossed in knitting, the deep maroon shade twining into an impassioned pattern. At last the day came when Laboni was delighted to see her labour of love donned by her handsome husband.
Years passed by and every winter Prasun would wear it without fail. After decades of use, there came a time when the pullover could not be worn out in public. So after retirement it became Prasun's daily wear on winter mornings. The first thing that he reached out for after waking up was the warm hug of the antique woollen knitwear. Laboni would sometimes mildly admonish and coax him to wear the ones lying almost idle in the closet. Their grandson Bunty would also join Laboni in cajoling his Dadu to wear the ones of his choice. But surprisingly enough, Prasun would not be persuaded even by his darling grandson's plea. One day Bappa rather rudely said, "Papa, why don't throw away that decrepit stuff! I know it is Ma's handmade gift to you but you must understand that it is no longer wearable."
Prasun was at once tempted to burst into a fitting reply and point out the value of emotional attachment and labour, the things which the present generation were at a loss to comprehend. But he chose to keep quiet, thinking of the futility of embarking on a contentious dialogue, something which he was often dragged into inadvertently with his son of late. He often wondered whether he was a misfit in the fast-paced technologically-spurred generation where eternal values changed colours, relationships were as fragile as a house of cards, and emotions could be masqueraded at ease. A gaping chasm separated him from his son's world.
However, Laboni tried her best to strike a semblance of harmony in their discords.
* * *
A tug at her anchal brought Laboni back to the present scenario. Bunty had barged into her room, ready to make a mess of all the clothes of her husband she had sorted and kept aside to be donated. Laboni held Bunty back from his destructive spree with the promise of a story to be read out at bedtime. Finally, she packed everything, and on the top placed the maroon pullover lovingly. She cast one parting long look at it in remembrance of Prasun's fondness for it and left the room along with Bunty. The next morning Bappa would transfer the packets to their new home.
The day next, Laboni retired to her room after dinner. As she was about to lie down on the bed she had shared with her husband for forty-two long years, she noticed something on it. A closer look revealed that it was a brown paper packet. Wondering what surprise was kept waiting in it she opened the packet with trembling fingers. She was thrilled to find the maroon pullover with a note inside:
This is for keeps Ma ...
The generation gap had been bridged!